These budget pocket knives are tough, durable and practical.

Everyone Needs at least One Good Beater Folding Knife

I know it’s not cool to actually use your knives these days. Most of mine sit on my desk or in my drawer, only used a half dozen times while I was testing them and then delegated to the decoration section of my workspace. I do have a small collection of durable budget knives that I use regularly, though.

And not just use, I beat them to death. They get run through the dirt, pried between an old rusty screw fused to a washer, stabbed into mud while I’m trying to wrangle a torn up irrigation pipe, or thrown against a tree either because I’m trying to startle the big damn spider sitting in a branch or because I’ve just fallen out of the tree it just feels appropriate in the moment.

The point is, some knives are made to be used and abused, and it seems like that necessary aspect of knives doesn’t really get highlighted that often. So here are some of the best knives I’ve found for hard use. Either I or my brother own most of them, but the others are knives that I will probably get, based on what I’ve read, when I need to replace the hard-use knives that I have.

If you are willing to spend quite a bit more than $50 for a hard use knife. Check out our review of the Cold Steel 4MAX Scout.

Here Are Our Top Picks For The Best Hard Use Knives Under $50

Under 3 Inches

  • Esee Zancudo – 2.9″ Blade | Aus-8 Steel | Drop Point | G-10 Handle | Read More…
  • Ontario RAT 2 – 3.0″ Blade | Aus-8 or D2 Steel | Drop Point | Nylon Handle | Read More…
  • Kershaw Cryo 1555Ti – 2.75″ Blade | 8Cr13MoV Steel | Drop Point | Stainless Steel Handle | Read More…

Over 3 Inches

  • Kershaw Emerson CQC 6K – 3.25″ Blade | 8Cr14MoV Steel | Clip Point | G-10 Handle | Read More…
  • Gerber Flatiron – 3.6″ Blade | 7Cr17MoV Steel | Cleaver Style | Aluminum Handle | Read More…
  • CRKT Shenanigan Z – 3.25″ Blade | Aus-8 Steel | Drop Point | GFN Handle | Read More…
  • Ruger CRKT 2-Stage Compact – 3.5″ Blade | 8Cr17MoV Steel | Tanto Style | Aluminum & Stainless Steel Handle | Read More…
  • Opinel #9 – 3.5″ Blade | High Carbon Steel | Clip Point | Beechwood Handle | Read More…
  • Cold Steel Pocket Bushman – 4.5″ Blade | 4116 German Stainless Steel | Clip Point | Stainless Steel Handle | Read More…

 

 

Hard Use Knives Under 3 Inches

First the smaller knives. I prefer this size range because, more often than not, I need a knife to get into tiny spaces. But these are also really easy to pack around, and usually a smaller size means a lower price so they’re not too bad to replace in the likely event that I lose one.

Esee Zancudo

The Esee Zancudo is a great beater knife at an excellent price. Thi shard use knife is perfect for people who use a knife for work on a regular basis.

  • Overall Length: 7.0”
  • Blade Length: 2.9”
  • Steel: Aus-8
  • Blade Style: Drop point
  • Handle Length: 4.0”
  • Handle Material: G-10
  • Lock Mechanism: Frame
  • Open system: Manual thumb stud
  • Grind: Flat
  • Carry System: Reversible tip-down pocket clip

I’ve abused this knife more than anything I own. It’s just the right combination of cheap, tough, and easy to carry to get used in pretty much every dirty job I have to do. It’s not necessarily the best knife for any given job; it’s just one of those little tools that’s always a possible option for helping with any given job.

The design itself comes from the folks at Esee, but it’s actually manufactured by Blue Ridge knives, which makes most of their stuff in Taiwan. Whatever you think of overseas manufacturing, it’s a big part of why this knife is such a reasonable price, and aside from some blade drift (and let’s be honest, that’s probably at least half my fault), I haven’t had any issues with the manufacturing quality.

I personally own the Aus-8 version of this knife, but they also make a D2 steel version that is, by all reports, much better. Those reports are from people who love D2 steel anyway, and I’m someone who loves Aus-8, so we’re at an impasse. I have yet to get the D2 version and do any kind of side-by-side comparison.

If that seems cool, take a look at my full review of the Zancudo here.

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Ontario RAT 2

The Ontario is an extremely popular tough folding knife that is a great option for camping or working.

 

  • Overall Length: 7.0”
  • Blade Length: 3.0”
  • Steel: Aus-8 or D2
  • Blade Style: Drop point
  • Handle Length: 4.1”
  • Handle Material: Nylon
  • Lock Mechanism: Liner
  • Open system: Manual thumb stud
  • Grind: Flat
  • Carry System: 4-position pocket clip

I don’t own a Rat 2 (yet), but I can’t seem to get away from being recommended a Rat 2. It has a similar design to the Zancudo, but I’d be crucified by anyone who’s used a Rat if I didn’t say it’s almost certainly better than the Esee Zancudo. I won’t guarantee that, but all reports seem to agree this is an insanely tough knife. At the very least, it has the added perk of being available in either Aus-8 stainless or D2 tool steel.

Also, if you’re not quite into the exact size of this knife, there’s also the Rat 1, which is slightly larger, and the Rat 3, which is much larger and a fixed blade.

Someday I’ll do a side-by-side comparison of the two different steels the Rat 2 comes in, but in the meantime I have to say that I like the style and price of this knife, and in the unlikely event that I ever need to replace my Zancudo, it will probably be with this thing.

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Kershaw Cryo 1555Ti

The Kershaw Cryo is famous for a reason. It is a well designed pocket knife that is tough enough to withstand hard work,

 

  • Overall Length: 6.5”
  • Blade Length: 2.75”
  • Steel: 8Cr13MoV
  • Blade Style: Drop point
  • Handle Length: 3.8”
  • Handle Material: Stainless steel
  • Lock Mechanism: Frame lock w/ lockbar stabilizer
  • Open system: Assisted open flipper tab
  • Grind: Hollow
  • Carry System: 4-position pocket clip

This is a Rick Hinderer knife, and that’s usually a good indication that it’s a tough blade. It’s also the only reason I’m recommending an assisted open knife. Normally that’s a red flag for me, especially after the ambivalent experience I had with the CRKT Ignitor. I have to make an exception for Hinderer stuff, though, as I rarely pick up one of his knives without getting flush with the sudden feeling of possibility.

He tends to specialize in easy one-handed open, which is really nice when you’re working on something, especially since the Cryo is pretty thin. Bare-handed that’s not a problem, but if you’re wearing any kind of glove it can get tricky to get a folding knife open one-handed. This thing not only feels incredibly snappy, it feels like something you can smack around in a gloved hand.

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Hard-Use Folder Over 3 Inches

Most of the knives in this category are blades you can really wack at stuff with. They’re mostly overbuilt with wide blade stocks and tough frame locks, and for the most part that’s what you want to look for in a larger beater knife. In my opinion (and experience) it should be fairly easy to clean and look like it can survive a fall from the top of a ten-foot tree.

Kershaw Emerson CQC 6K

The Kershaw Emerson CQC 6K is a tactical knife that is durable enough to be used for hard tasks, and it is relatively cheap at under $50.

 

  • Overall Length: 7.75”
  • Blade Length: 3.25”
  • Steel: 8Cr14MoV
  • Blade Style: Clip point
  • Handle Length: 4.5”
  • Handle Material: G-10
  • Lock Mechanism: Frame Lock
  • Open system: Manual thumb disk / Emerson wave-shaped opener
  • Grind: Hollow
  • Carry System: Tip-up pocket clip

It’s hard to beat the brutal efficiency of an Emerson knife. He always makes his knives easy to open, but what’s probably more useful to someone looking for some kind of beater knife is that the tips of his designs are usually pretty solid. Not because they’re stout, he just seems to have some magic understanding of geometry he brings to his designs, so most Emersons tend to have a tougher structure than other knives in the same size.

The Kershaw CQC series has a lot of knives that frankly don’t seem all that different to me aside from small variations in size and different kinds of steel. I’ve put up the stats for the CQC 6K because I usually see it running for around $30, but if you’ve handled one CQC you have a good idea of how the rest feel. We personally have (and frequently use) an Emerson CQC, but for the life of me I can’t figure out or remember which one it is. It’s good, and hasn’t rusted or snapped yet. That’s all I care about.

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Gerber Flatiron

This cleaver styled pocket knife from Gerber is tough and well designed. If properly cared for it should last for years.

  • Overall Length: 8.5”
  • Blade Length: 3.6”
  • Steel: 7Cr17MoV
  • Blade Style: Cleaver
  • Handle Length:
  • Handle Material: Aluminum
  • Lock Mechanism: Frame lock
  • Open system: Manual thumb hole
  • Grind: Hollow
  • Carry System: Tip-up Pocket clip

If you want a good handle for a good price, the Flatiron is one of the best ways you can go. The cleaver blade limits its usability in some ways, but it’s fantastic for detailed shaving work. It has one of the best finger choils of any folding knife I’ve handled personally so it actually feels comfortable to make a feather stick with it.

It’s actually a bit of a paradox, because the knife is clearly overbuilt for hard use, but the design of it seems geared toward finer work. I see it as something designed to shave and slice in potentially harsh environments like a construction or camp site. Either way, it has a tough frame lock and a ton of space for gloved hands to work with comfortably.

If you’d like to read a little more about check out our full review. Or someone else’s. God knows plenty of people have harmed the internet with their own opinions on the Flatiron that you don’t need my ramblings to learn something about it.

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CRKT Shenanigan Z

The Shenanigan is a tough knife with a pocket clicp that needs improvement, but if you are looking for a hard use knife the Shenanigan is a good one for less than $50.

 

  • Overall Length: 8.25”
  • Blade Length: 3.25”
  • Steel: Aus-8
  • Blade Style: Drop point
  • Handle Length: 4.875”
  • Handle Material: GFN
  • Lock Mechanism: Liner
  • Open system: Manual flipper tab
  • Grind: Hollow
  • Carry System: Tip-down pocket clip

I gave this knife a hard time in my review because the pocket clip gives it a pretty bad hot spot and it’s clunky in the pocket, but I still carry it all the time. It’s the blade that really sells this knife. Even when it starts getting a little dull you can get a lot done just with the slight recurve shape of the edge. And it’s so wide you have a lot of material to hit stuff with. I’ve actually used it as a kind of emergency machete a few times, hacking at brush or straggling branches because I wasn’t smart enough to bring something bigger along.

So long as you keep it sharp, though, the real perk of this knife is how it slices. And while the body of it is bulky, that’s part of what makes it a working knife (at least, that’s what the designer Ken Onion intended). It’s bulky but easy to clean, the steel is middle of the road but easier to sharpen, and the general overbuilt design makes it that much easier to grip and manipulate when you’re wearing gloves.

Click here to check out my full review of the CRKT Shenanigan.

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Ruger CRKT 2-Stage Compact

The Ruger CRKT Two Stage Compact is one of the toughest hard use budget pocket knives on the market.

  • Overall Length: 8.3”
  • Blade Length: 3.5”
  • Steel: 8Cr17MoV
  • Blade Style: Tanto
  • Handle Length: 5.0”
  • Handle Material: Aluminum and stainless steel
  • Lock Mechanism: Frame lock
  • Open system: Manual flipper tab
  • Grind: Hollow
  • Carry System:4-positions pocket clip

This knife makes a good club and a better prybar, but you might have a little trouble getting it to slice any kind of fine line. It excels in pure toughness on a budget. You can throw it against a brick wall without hurting it. And even if you do hurt it, the small chip of paint that might flake off it is a negligible percentage of the mass of the knife as a whole.

If you’re breaking down cardboard, or need to take a piece off a big chunk of wood, this isn’t a bad knife to pack around. The tanto style blade has also come in handy quite a few times as a way to work between sheets of metal or pry pieces of wood apart. The manufacturing isn’t perfect, but it carries itself well by virtue of its bulk. It’s sort of like the Tonka truck of folding knives. When all your grandchildren are standing around your coffin, they could be arguing over what the hell to do with this old knife you still have in your pocket. Of all the knives on this list, this is easily the one that can take the most abuse.

We didn’t exactly throw it at brick walls, but if you want to see it chop, check out are full review of it here.

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Opinel #9

The Opinel is a classic hard use durable knife for people who need a beater knife to get hard work done.

  • Overall Length: 8.15”
  • Blade Length: 3.5”
  • Steel: High carbon
  • Blade Style: Clip point
  • Handle Length: 4.65”
  • Handle Material: Beechwood
  • Lock Mechanism: Virobloc
  • Open system: Manual nail nick
  • Grind: Flat
  • Carry System: Pocket (some leather sheaths available)

As hesitant as I am to include something that isn’t one-handed open, it wouldn’t be fair if I didn’t say the Opinel design is underappreciated as a working knife. It’s nothing fancy, which is what makes it so durable. It would be a nightmare to open with a gloved hand, but once you’ve got it, the round handle is actually pretty well made for a clunky grip. On top of that, it’s really made to get dirty. If I recall, this was originally a design for farmers (like most friction folder designs). It has a smooth wood handle and a straightforward blade design. No weird grooves that might pack up grime, and a price that makes it pretty painless to replace should the worst happen.

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Cold Steel Pocket Bushman

The Pocket Bushman from Cold Steel is an under valued knife . Considering it's great price and toughness it should be more famous.

 

  • Overall Length: 10.25
  • Blade Length: 4.5”
  • Steel: 4116 German stainless steel
  • Blade Style: Clip point
  • Handle Length: 5.75”
  • Handle Material: Stainless steel
  • Lock Mechanism: Ram safe
  • Open system: Manual thumb stud
  • Grind: Flat
  • Carry System: Reversible tip-up pocket clip

Cold Steel would have a lot more knives on this list but most of the really good stuff I wanted to put in here tops the $70 mark. I almost included the Voyager anyway just because we’ve used that thing so much, but if let in one $70 hard-use knife I’d have to let a few more gems in here, and then it would just be a different blog.

The Pocket Bushman is a surprisingly fancy knife considering the price, though. They’ve packed a lot of features into this specifically to make it a hard-use knife. The main one of course being the Ram safe lock mechanism. This is essentially a backlock bar on a spring system that is always engaged. You actually have to pull the back bar down from the bottom of the knife for opening and closing the knife.

There were some big problems with this lock system when the Bushman first came out, but those were fixed in later iterations and now it’s nearly unbreakable. If there’s any real problem with this knife it’s that it’s still difficult to open even two-handed. Some people claim to have methods for one-handed opening this knife, but Cold Steel doesn’t recommend doing that. That’s probably why they’ve since moved on to the Tri-ad lock.

But whatever ergonomic issues the Pocket Bushman might have, it’s still a massively tough folding knife for a great price.

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What is a Hard Use Design

Dirt and impact are what I most expect a knife to handle well in order to count as “hard use”. I should be able to drop it out of a tree, get it covered in mud, and easily deploy and use it with gloves on, then clean it up at the end of the day with no chips in the edge. That comes down to something with a simple design and tough construction that’s easy to clean and maintain.

When I say you should get a simple design, I mostly mean one that’s easy to clean. And even more I mean that you shouldn’t get an assisted-open knife. The more mechanics there are on a knife the more things that can go wrong. The CRKT Ruger 2-Stage Compact is a great example of a simple design. It’s just two big pieces of metal with some sharper metal sandwiched in between. It doesn’t perform the best, but it won’t break easily, and it will always be easy to fix.

What’s the Best Steel, Handle, and Grind for a Hard Use Knife

In every case, “best” is going to be a little different, and sometimes it doesn’t matter what the materials and structure are if the company has made everything well. But there is a tier of importance when we’re talking about knives that are going to see a lot of dirt and impact:

Tough Knife Priorities:

  • Soft steel
  • Simple design
  • G-10, FRN, or Micarta scales w/ aggressive texture
  • Flat grind over convex grind
  • Convex grind over hollow grind
  • Frame lock over liner lock
  • Edge retention

Grind and Steel

All those characteristics can be expanded into a ton of different materials, but here are a few combinations that I’ve found the most useful in my own experiences of doing a lot of dirty work and sometimes using knives on stuff they really shouldn’t be used for:

  • D2 steel w/ a flat grind
  • Aus-10 w/ a convex grind
  • Aus-8 steel w/ a flat grind
  • 8Cr13MoV w/ a hollow grind

The last one was easily the worst knife I’ve worked with consistently, but the steel was soft enough that the grind didn’t get damaged too badly if I dropped it or accidentally hit rock or metal when I was cutting (it was also a pretty cheap knife that I didn’t mind breaking). Normally you really want to avoid blades with a hollow grind because it just makes the edge too thin to be out in the rough.

Here’s the breakdown as I see it:

  • If you need a really slicey knife get a flat grind with thin blade stock,
  • If you need durability get a flat grind with thick blade stock.

But The Maker is More Important than the Materials

A good heat treatment does more for toughness and edge retention than any combination of chromium, vanadium, and carbon.

At the end of the day, all the features and materials of a knife are secondary to the skill of the people who worked on it. That’s why Buck’s 420HC BOS steel is so highly regarded. In the hands of most other companies, 420HC is a pretty limp material, but in the hands of a master like Paul Bos it’s easily one of the best hard-use steels in terms of performance vs. price point. And most of the major companies like Kershaw, Cold Steel, Gerber Spyderco, and Boker know their way around steels like this.

Cold Steel, for example, can do some pretty amazing things with Aus-8, and Gerber has reached a point where their 420HC is easily comparable to Bucks. And while 8Cr13MoV gets a lot of noses turned up at it for being soft Chinese steel, it still comes out pretty formidable on the Kershaw CQC series. That’s largely because Emerson is damn good at designing a tough knife, and the Kershaw factories (which are also the Zero Tolerance factories and the Shun knife factories) are efficient works of art in their own right.

If you want simple steel recommendations here’s a simple list:

  • D2 is king,
  • Aus-8 can be pretty good too,
  • 8Cr13MoV is fine in a pinch.

But honestly you should be buying knives for the company, not the materials.

Handle Material

Here’s the TL;DR: Just get something in G-10 scales with good texturing.

My assumption is that most people are holding hard-use knives with gloves on. That makes G-10 scales with an aggressive texture the most common ideal. Both the Rat 2 and the ESEE Zancudo are pretty good examples of this. Even with gloves on I can usually feel a sort of “stickiness” between the handles and the glove material. It really doesn’t take a lot of texturing to make even FRN scales effective as well, though. My Boker Plus Patriot is nothing if not glove friendly, but it’s definitely not fun to hold bare handed.

Just avoid knives with handles that have been smoothed and polished, sort of like the Micarta on the Buck Selkirk.

Liner Locks vs Frame Locks

The rule of thumb is that frame locks are stronger than liner locks, but, again, this is an issue of skilled craftsmanship. The Rat 2 is a liner lock, but I’ve abused the hell out of it and never had an issue with the lock weakening or the scales coming loose. Conversely, the ESEE Zancudo is tiny brick that could probably survive a tank blast. Can’t imagine a situation where it would need to, though.